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It is Unlikely That the ISIS Attack on Iran Will Escalate Conflict in West Asia

Iran has, since the late 1980s, embarked on a policy of cultivating its Shiite proxy militias across the region.

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nderstateThe latest conflagration in the West Asia North Africa (WANA) region occurred on 3 January this year when two blasts targeted ceremonies being held in the Kerman province to mark the death anniversary of Iran's top military leader General Qassem Suleimani, assassinated four years ago by US forces in Iraq.

The symbolism of the attack which killed 103 and injured 141 (believed to be the deadliest on Iranian territory since the 1979 revolution) cannot be understated.

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Fears of Escalation

Iran is no stranger to terror attacks on its soil, but these have usually been targeted assassinations, like that of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020, rather than the mass killing of 3 January. Tehran has usually pinned the blame for these on the "Zionist entity" - Israel. With the Gaza war raging between Israel and the Iran-backed militant group Hamas, Iran did not, following the blasts, rush to blame anyone. Moreover, the Kerman attacks occured only a day after Israel assassinated Hamas leader Saleh Al Arouri in Lebanon.

It must have, therefore, come as somewhat of a relief to Iran that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the blasts and that Israel was not behind this, even though Iranian leaders have vowed to avenge the attacks, even announcing that ISIS was created by the governments in Tel Aviv and Washington DC.

After all, Tehran's harsh rhetoric against Tel Aviv since the start of the latter's military operations in Gaza, following the brutal 7 October terror attack and hostage-taking by Hamas, has not translated into any direct action for the Palestinians. The fighting continues with an estimated 22,000 Palestinians dead in the Gaza Strip, with at least a third of them being women and children.

The Kerman attacks, however, coupled with Al Arouri's assassination, have sparked fears of an escalation of the conflict. The Red Sea is also already witnessing an episode of violence that has disrupted international shipping and supply chains, and increased prices of commodities.

Egypt has already frozen the talks it was supposed to host between Israel and Hamas following the assassination. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has embarked on yet another tour of the region. His shuttle diplomacy since October 2023 has yet to yield a ceasefire or get Israel to scale down its attacks on Gaza. Not all Israeli hostages in Hamas' captivity have been released either.

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Iran's Proxies

Yet, if the past is any indication, it is doubtful that Iran will take any direct retaliatory action.

Neither the assassination of Suleimani by the US nor of Fakhrizadeh inside Iran (alleged by the Iranians to be a Mossad operation) elicited any direct action from Iran. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s remains the last instance where the former actively participated in conflict. Since then, it has embarked on a policy of cultivating its Shiite proxy militias across the region to advance its influence politically and outsource its wars without embroiling itself in direct conflict with its adversaries.

These are Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, the only Sunni force that it supports and through whom it has been participating in a shadow war with Israel for decades. In Yemen, it has its Houthi proxies, which has taken on other rivals in the region, that is, the Saudi-Emirati coalition backing the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

The Houthies are now targeting Israel-bound ships in the Red Sea since the breakout of the Gaza war. In Iraq, it used the Hashd al-Sha'bi militias to fight the ISIS and US forces, as well as assert its influence in domestic Iraqi politics. Hezbollah and limited Iranian military support also came to the aid of President Bashar Al Assad when civil war broke out in Syria. Together with Russia, it saved the day for Assad.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had, in the initial days of the war, warned that if Israel did not cease its attacks on the Gaza Strip, "new fronts will be opened." Following this, Hezbollah launched rockets on Israel's northern border inviting retaliation from the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces). Now, following the assassination of Al Arrouri, Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah has vowed revenge. Rhetoric aside, Lebanon is not prepared, at least economically, for another war.

With Iran still under Western sanctions and given its stretched resources, Hezbollah may not escalate the conflict. China has been calling for an end to attacks in the Red Sea as its supply chains are affected. It sees the situation as another pretext for Western naval presence there. As Iran's major ally and the largest buyer of Iranian crude, it may prevail on China to rein in the Houthis. More stepped-up attacks on US forces by militant groups in Iraq and northern Syria might be an alternate option for Tehran.

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What It Means for Gaza and Other Arab Nations

On the other hand, Arab states have not shown any particular resolve to end the conflict in Gaza. They have only taken some diplomatic measures.

For instance, Saudi Arabia convened a summit of Arab and Muslim states, the UAE got a resolution for humanitarian aid to Gaza endorsed by the UN Security Council, Qatar has facilitated the release of many Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners, while Egypt and Jordan have facilitated diplomatic summits. Egypt even facilitated the transfer of humanitarian aid to Gaza and the transfer of patients and the wounded from there to hospitals in the Arab world.

Nonetheless, no country has any appetite for hordes of Palestinian immigrants or a strong or victorious Hamas or any other militant group for that matter. With the Western world demonstrating no political will for a ceasefire, it is really up to Israel to decide when to stop.

In this regard, it may have been better had Egypt gone ahead with the planned Israel-Hamas meeting instead of calling it off in the wake of Al Arrouri's assassination. Blinken's visit may yet resuscitate that. Since it is election year in the US, there is little appetite in DC for any further escalation of the conflict.

What is apparent in all of this is the diminishing US influence in West Asia, as Arab countries watch with trepidation the spectre of Iranian influence rising anew. While they brook no tolerance for militant groups like Hamas, thousands of dead Palestinian civilians make for bad optics and the inability to have a ceasefire three months on shows their lack of power. This, in turn, is paving the way for closer cooperation between the Arab world with Russia and China, which is inevitable with the induction of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE into BRICS.

Finally, the Kerman attacks should be a wake up call for India, that is, a resurgent ISIS in the neighborhood, active not just in Iran, but also of late, in Pakistan.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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